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William M. Burton (Will)

Assistant Professor of French
4220 Dwinelle Hall

Research Areas

My research examines how 'literary' authors position their work with regard to other disciplines and domains in the 18th and 20th centuries. The authors that I study are concerned with imaginative writing's political potential and its capacity to produce knowledge. In their often formally daring, genre-defying texts, they both adopt and contest philosophical, political and scientific concepts to articulate their views on what we now call 'literature'.

The End of Sex, my current project, approaches this topic through a case-study of Monique Wittig and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I show that in the 1970s and 80s, Wittig developed her uncompromising version of lesbian feminism through an appropriation of Rousseau's thought. She deployed his concepts to critique the social sciences' naturalization of heterosexuality (including what is today referred to as 'the gender binary'). In her novels and essays, Wittig both called for and envisioned a world in which sexual difference has been abolished. Her surprising appropriation of Rousseau leads me to place her in conversation with the critical consensus that he was a gender essentialist. On the contrary, I demonstrate that in the 1750s and 60s, he formulated a complex social-constructionist account of sexual difference and its relationship to language. This account challenged the origin stories of both natural law and natural history. Unlike Wittig, however, Rousseau viewed sexual difference as essential to morality, and therefore he encouraged individual and social practices that would protect this fragile construction.

My previous research focused on queer theory and Quebec and translation studies.

Courses taught:

French 43. Man, woman, other: Across and beyond the gender binary in Francophone cultures

French 103. Social history of Montreal in the 20th century

French 121. Elles: Solidarity, desire and conflict between women in the "Second Wave" of feminism and after

French 173. Pronoun wars: Literary and linguistic perspectives

French 265. Le roman comme expérience: Littérature, savoirs, engagement, 1940-1990

French 274. "French theory" via Rousseau

I am affiliated with the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society, the Department of Gender and Women's Studies, the Program in Critical Theory, and the Canadian studies program.


Ph.D., Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University, 2020

M.Phil., French and Romance Philology, Columbia University, 2017

M.A., French and Romance Philology, Columbia University, 2015

Maîtrise ès arts (M.A.), Études anglaises, Université de Montréal, 2014

B.A. (First Class Honours), Lettres et traduction françaises, McGill University 2010

Selected Publications

“Rousseau: Structuralist or Lesbian?” Forthcoming in Modern Intellectual History.

What the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake Can Teach Us Now.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 9 April 2020.

Translatability and Queer Desire in Nègres Blancs d’Amérique: Three Theses + a Hypothesis.” Québec Studies, 61, June 2016: 137–64. doi:10.3828/qs.2016.9.

“Inverting the Text: A Proposed Queer Translation Praxis.” In “Translating Queers, Queering Translation”, special issue edited by B.J. Epstein of In Other Words: The Journal for Literary Translators, no. 36 (2010): 54–68.